Geek Vs Geek: Has Time Run Out for Microsoft Office?

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eHow Tech Blog

Windows 8 isn’t the only new thing from Redmond; there’s a fresh version of Office as well. But this time around, there’s a confusing array of versions (Office 2013, Office 365, and many more) and a pricing model that some find distressing. Which version of Office is right for you? Or is the right answer: “None of the above?”

Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.

Dave: Microsoft products tend to have a three-year gestation cycle, which means that we’ve now got the newest version of Office, whether we need it or not. There was a time when I would automatically lap up the latest version of Office as if it were chocolate gravy, but this year, I’m not so sure. Now you have to choose between Office Professional 2013 (a $400 copy you buy outright) and Office 365 Home Premium (a $100 subscription you have to pay every year or the software just stops working). Microsoft seems to have gone out of its way to make upgrading to Office 2013 an unappealing and difficult decision. I’m more than half inclined to recommend that people switch to LibreOffice, the free open source alternative.

Rick: LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Kingsoft Office Free 2012, Google Docs, or any of the other free alternatives. I, too, find it borderline insulting that Microsoft continues to charge such steep prices for Office, especially in the face of such competent competitors. That said, the $99-per-year option doesn’t seem quite so bad when you consider that it nets you the equivalent of five licenses. Everyone in your family can run Office on their laptop, desktop, tablet, or whatever. Amortized out that way, it’s $20 per person per year — a little more palatable, no?

Dave: Yes, if you happen to be the Von Trapp Family Singers. But how many ordinary folks need five different copies of Office? My family could use two copies. Three, max. Yet I have to pay for five. And that’s $100 per year, every year, literally for the rest of my life. At least if I bought a boxed copy, I could pay once and choose when — or if — I wanted to give more money to Microsoft for another upgrade. Office 365 is like a bully you have to keep paying so he doesn’t hit you. Worse, did you catch what happened with Office Pro? Microsoft originally changed their licensing for Office 2013 by saying you could only install it on a single PC, once, for the life of the software. If your laptop was hit the next day by a meteor or stolen by a flying squirrel, tough luck. You had to buy a new $300 copy. Only when the Internet revolted did they back off that policy.

Rick: You’re starting to make an awful lot of sense, which is scary. I’ll admit that as a self-proclaimed cheapskate, I’d never subscribe to Microsoft Office, even if I was sharing it among five people, for exactly the reason you describe: it’s a life sentence. But there is one bright spot in Microsoft’s otherwise flawed pricing plans: education. Students can get Office 365 University (plus an extra 20GB of SkyDrive storage) for four years for just $79.99. That’s $20 per year! Makes me want to go back to school.

Dave: Why are we even having this conversation? It’s insane to spend $400 for a software package in 2013. You can buy an entire computer for that! What’s even new in Office 2013 to justify my money? Most people hardly use a fraction of the features in Office to begin with Take a survey of how most people use Excel, for example. In any given office, 8 out of 10 people use it like a giant table to organize information. They are only barely aware that the program does math any more sophisticated than addition and subtraction. These people — most people — should be using a free alternative.

Rick: I agree 100 percent: Office has lots of features that few people use. On the other hand, it’s Microsoft’s bestselling product (other than Windows, of course), so obviously people like it and want it. And Office 2013/365 represents the best version yet because it’s cloud-savvy and has interface improvements that actually make sense. In Outlook, for example, there’s a one-click option to view only your unread e-mail. And the controversial Ribbon is now optional; you can hide it if you prefer. Price notwithstanding, this is the single best office suite you can buy, period. In fact, take price out of the picture entirely and tell me you wouldn’t choose Office 2013 over all competitors.

Dave: Well of course I’d choose Office if it were free. I’d also live on a diet of cupcakes and pizza if they were nutritionally equivalent to broccoli. If I had to be honest to our readers, I’d say that only suckers (and businesses with deep pockets) spend money on a word processor and spreadsheet program anymore. After all, if a one-click “view unread mail” button is the best reason you can think of to spend $400 (or $100 a year for life), then innovation is truly dead. Can you give me even a single reason not to switch to LibreOffice this very afternoon?

Rick: Sure: Outlook. There’s no other contact/calendar/mail manager around that even comes close. LibreOffice and its ilk don’t even have a mail client. The only viable open-source option is Thunderbird, but Mozilla has stopped developing it. What’s more, you’re overlooking a very important consideration for consumers and business users alike: file compatibility. Few free/open-source Office alternatives are fully file-compatible with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Some can open those kinds of documents, but most can save only to older formats. Talk about a hassle!

Dave: You make a fair point about Outlook. For some reason, software developers appear to have given up on creating full-featured mail clients about 20 years ago. I can’t even remember the last time I saw any mail program at all aside from Outlook. Weird, right? But no worries — just use Gmail instead. Or Outlook.com. Webmail supports POP and IMAP just fine. And as for file compatibility, I’ll say that open source alternatives are compatible enough. They read and write Office file formats just fine 90% of the time. Sure, there’s an occasional glitch, but honestly, I’ve even run into bizarre compatibility problems between different versions of Word. So, nothing’s perfect. Good enough.

Rick: Hey, pal, we didn’t put a man on the moon with “good enough.” If you want the best productivity suite money can buy, you need Microsoft Office. Much as I wish I could hand-pick my own suite (Word, Excel, OneNote, and Publisher, please) and buy it for, say, $50, sometimes you have to pony up. A milk crate is “good enough” to sit on, but when I’m parked in front of the TV, I want a comfy leather couch. And that’s what Office is: my comfy leather couch. You enjoy your crate, sir.

Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.

And what other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh.

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